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Nina Rees
Elanna Yalow

Can $500 million invested in 20 million of America’s youngest learners help close the achievement gap? That is the aim of the new Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge, the Obama administration’s first competitive grant targeted to improving the quality of early learning programs for children under age 5. While the dollar amount for the Early Learning Challenge competition is modest compared to the $4.3 billion K-12 Race to the Top fund, it has the potential to change the trajectory of education reform in the United States.

Why is the Early Learning Challenge significant far beyond its $500 million in funding? Most importantly, the competition takes aim at the achievement gap by giving states incentives—rather than sticks—to change the way they do business. From the list of 36 states that have indicated their intent to apply—ranging from those like Mississippi and Wyoming, which don’t have an early care and education system, to those such as North Carolina and Pennsylvania, with established systems—the competition is clearly addressing an unmet need in every state.

Second, the Early Learning Challenge competition legitimizes early learning as a necessary foundation and bridge to K-12 success. This is the first early education grant competition that requires the U.S. Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services—which administers both Head Start and the Child Care Development Block Grant—to work together. This is a critical shift in policy and grant-making because it combines education with the health and social service aspects of early childhood programs, building on similar efforts by governors to better align their early learning systems with K-12 education. We urge both federal and state entities to continue this type of coordination and cooperation to help better support our children from cradle through college.

Finally, the program requires states to have data to demonstrate the impact of their early learning programs. Although the use of assessment data in schools has stirred up controversy, we believe that the Early Learning Challenge creates a long-overdue incentive for states to create developmentally and age-appropriate assessments for children who are too young to sit at desks and bubble in circles with a No. 2 pencil. Meaningful early learning data will dramatically improve our ability to track student progress over time and conduct more robust studies on the link between early learning programs and student achievement. Without such data, how can we determine the relative effectiveness of different programs?

In a culture that craves quick fixes, we view the Early Learning Challenge as the first step toward acknowledging the need for a long-term investment in U.S. achievement to ensure global competitiveness. A recent Human Capital Research Collaborative/University of Minnesota 25-year longitudinal study showed that those who participated in a high-quality early childhood program beginning at age 3 were more likely than their peers who hadn’t participated to graduate from high school, achieve higher socioeconomic status and develop job skills. They were also less likely to have experienced substance abuse, felony arrest and incarceration. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development recently announced that 15-year-old students in 40 countries who attended pre-primary education performed better on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) exams than those who did not, even after accounting for their socioeconomic backgrounds.

The United States will continue to lose ground in the global achievement race unless we level the playing field for children well before they step foot in kindergarten. Now is the time for policymakers, the early learning and K-3 communities, and the private sector to take the Early Learning Challenge head-on to prepare all children for success in school and life.

Dr. Elanna Yalow is Chief Academic Officer, Global Early Learning Programs for Knowledge Universe (KU), the nation’s leading provider of early care and education. Dr. Yalow is responsible for the development of KU’s educational programs in the United States and for supporting the use of best practices in education, professional development and quality assurance across KU’s global education programs in the US, Europe and Asia.

Nina Rees is Senior Vice President for Strategic Initiatives at KU. She served as Assistant Deputy Secretary for Innovation and Improvement in the U.S. Department of Education from 2002 to 2006.

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